Here's Scientific Proof That Some People Just Can't Wear Earbuds — And How to Solve It

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

The first earbuds were patented in 1891, and they have been a royal pain in the ass ever since.

A large minority of people knows this, but they've been mostly silent on the subject. The tides are turning, though, and a new class of products is letting everyone in on the secret: The biggest problem with earbuds isn't the constant tangling — it's that they don't fit every ear. Observe:

The issue: The trouble with earbuds is that they're designed as a one-size-fits-all product, but that's not how human ears work. As Brian Fligor, the chief audiologist for 3-D ear-scanning firm Lantos Technologies, told Slate, our ears are "as unique to you as your fingerprints," so a cookie-cutter earbud design often doesn't cut it.

"Even within one person, your ear canals are not symmetric," Fligor told Slate. "I do informal polls and about a quarter of the people I talk to say earphones don't fit them."

It's such a problem that even the New York Times wrote about it. The trouble is the two main types of earbuds available today aren't cutting it for most listeners. The on-ear variety, like Apple's ubiquitous white "EarPod" earbuds, are meant to be comfortable and non-invasive, but tend to fall out at the slightest jostle. The in-ear type, the ones with the rubber bulb that goes deeper into the ear, are supposed to stay more in place and provide better sound quality but are prone to hurting people's ears.

But thankfully, a few companies think they have the answer. People with abnormally sized ears don't need to suffer any longer.

The solutions: United Sciences has taken a specialized approach to solving the earbud problem. They developed a scanner that gathers data from the canal and exterior or the ear, and uses to it to create a custom 3-D-printed earpiece that promises a perfect fit. The tech is not yet available at the retail level, only  being sold to entities like hearing aid audiologists and high-end headphone manufacturers, but the company anticipates consumers will be able to have a custom scan performed in stores for about $200 later this year. The revolution approaches.

Meanwhile, companies like EARBUDi are focusing on taking the "earbuddedness" out of your headphones. The company offers a flexible earclip that snaps to your iPhone earbuds and keeps them in place by wrapping around the ear, providing a "soft over the ear design with earbud tilt & rotation gives a custom comfortable fit," says EARBUDi. They only cost about $10, but fellow sufferers swear by them.

But the problem is so pervasive that new innovations are emerging all the time.

EarSkinz are a soft plastic cover that allow your earbuds to conform better to your ear. Comply offers a variety of sizes of memory foam tips that fit over the earbuds you already have. Some industrious folks have even resorted to products like Sugru, a multipurpose putty that enables them to customize the fit of their earbuds. Tech blog Gizmodo likes Sprng, a sort of ergonomic plastic hook that keeps Apple's earbuds in place. "I wore them at work, on the subway, doing laundry, biking, jogging — all the things I've never been able to do without at least one earbud launching itself to freedom — and the damned things stayed put," they wrote.

But whatever the solution, these companies all do the important work of proving that there is a problem — that the legions of people who cannot fit small white spheres in their ears aren't crazy. Thanks to a few innovators, the troubles with practical portable audio may soon be no more.

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Derrick Rossignol

Derrick is a freelance writer who's mused about music, basketball, and whatever for Diffuser, Pretty Much Amazing, Dime and other places. He hosts "The Longest Album Review Podcast," in which he reviews the same Nickeback album every week because he likes a good challenge. Reach out at derrickrossignol.com.

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